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21 January 2009

Orientation vs. Preference: Why It Matters

Often it's the subtleties in life that make all the difference. Individually, quite shruggable. Collectively, contributing to a - perhaps subconscious? - bias.

Today's example comes from a (KGW-TV/NBC, Portland) story updating readers about the latest in the Sam Adams debacle currently distracting (consuming?) my second home.

The concern begins here (the subject: Mayor Sam Adams):
He also said that this was not an issue of sexual preference; rather, it was an issue of a public official lying, in his opinion.

"I don't think this is fundamentally an issue about sexual orientation. Other people can debate that," he said.

In introducing the quote, our writer uses the volatile (and, inaccurate) term "preference". But in the quote itself (admittedly absent the full transcript of Adams' remarks), we see the word "orientation".

For reference, from

   /ˈprɛfərəns, ˈprɛfrəns/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [pref-er-uhns, pref-ruhns] Show IPA Pronunciation
1. the act of preferring.
2. the state of being preferred.
3. that which is preferred; choice: His preference is vanilla, not chocolate.

The Associated Press, in its' own stylebook recommends:
Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to "sexual preference" or to a gay or alternative "lifestyle.

(I'd certainly argue the story in question passes the pertinent test.)

And, finally -- in all fairness -- is by no means the only outlet confusing the word "orientation" with the slight "preference". A quick search of Google News found other examples. (Including a [as found in Google cache, the story titled: "Editorial: Adams must go" appears to now have been removed] editorial on why the Mayor should resign. While I disagree as incorrect the use of the word "preference", in an editorial setting the word choice does give evidence to your position on the matter, context to your bias, and frankly-- a clue we won't agree.)

I encourage newsrooms everywhere to visit the website, review the NLGJA Stylebook Supplement and avoid future offensive and inaccurate mistakes.

UPDATE 21 JAN 2009 17:00 -- I emailed a copy of this post to site editors who quickly wrong back with the following responses:

"Thanks for the input, Brian. I looked up correct usage in AP and you are correct." (Eric Adams, story author)

"Right you are, it might seem to some like a small distinction but we recognize its importance - it matters to be precise in every aspect of every story, and this has been fixed." (Frank Mungeam, site manager)

I'm assured this was an oversight and feel confident the author will avoid making this mistake in the future.